I thought I knew what to expect from the Fitzwilliam’s Medieval room: lots of palpably two-dimensional saints looking at the sky with their hands together. This is usually the section of any gallery I walk through with scarcely a glance, seeing only flashes of gold in my peripheral vision, and letting these confirm my preconceptions of Medieval art as flat, gaudy and emotionally impoverished. When I spent some time forcing myself to look at the depictions of the Madonna and Child in the Fitzwilliam, however, I found drama and passion which I had never let myself see before.
The centre of this drama is the life of Jesus. The gospel narratives were firmly ingrained in all these artists’ minds. For them, Christ’s life had a clear purpose: to redeem humanity from sin by death on the cross. Even when the cross is not explicitly depicted, its presence is strongly felt.
In Vittore Crivelli’s rendering of the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (image featured above), death permeates what to a casual glance looks like a celebration of life, depicting a mother with her new-born son. Jesus’ pale skin, horizontal posture and unfocused eyes, however, make him look like a corpse.
The whole painting is set up to remind the reader that this child’s purpose is to die. Christ lies on black fabric, making a gesture of blessing, as if extending a benediction at the moment of dying, yet also holds a rose, redolent of a body being lowered into a grave; his translucent garment resembles a shroud. He is surrounded by angels who either look at him with pity, or away, out of the frame, as if imploring the viewer to share the collective mourning. His mother does not touch him, but has her hands together in earnest prayer, more suggestive of a mother at a wake than one cradling a young child.
Even when Christ is not so clearly implied to be dead-in-life, his body often has a vulnerability which looks forward to his eventual violent death. In Cosimo Rosseli’s hands, the child’s body is naked, held up for inspection by his mother, and grotesquely malleable: the Virgin’s hands make visible impressions in his skin. The spongy receptivity of his body and his detached expression both look forward to his passive acceptance of death.
When Christ’s body is depicted as less vulnerable and more dignified, his Passion is often still suggested by the symbol of the goldfinch (the bird’s diet of thistle seeds is suggestive of the crown of thorns). This goldfinch is usually held in Christ’s hand, so that Christ could choose to free the bird, symbolic of his free acceptance of the crucifixion. Something of the inward struggle this entails is suggested by Tommè. The face of Tommè Christ is serene, his body upright and dignified, but he holds the bird tightly (the ferocity of the child’s grip making a stark parallel with his mother’s soft touch), and its wings are pitched upwards in an attempt to escape.
The best-known use of the goldfinch symbol is probably Raphael’s, which is in the Uffizi rather than the Fitzwilliam. Here, the goldfinch is held lovingly by John the Baptist, who offers it to the Christ child. The light falling on Christ’s face gives him an angelic pallor, but his expression is blank and inscrutable: he could be lost in affection for his friend, or seeing a horrible premonition of his death. Christ’s hand hovers on the brink of caressing the bird’s head, and in so doing stretches his arm into a position which resembles his posture on the cross.
The tiny space between Christ’s palm and the bird’s head is crucial here. It suggests the possibility of hesitation, even withdrawal. It contains Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, and his cry that he has been forsaken. This space, a hair’s breadth, perhaps not even really there (are his fingers already touching the head’s feathers? we can’t know for sure), is the space in which Christ’s humanity can be found.
That’s the essence of what makes these paintings exciting to look at: supposedly innocent gestures, objects and even animals carry with them portentous, violent subtexts. The god depicted by Medieval artists is not a bearded, paternal figure who towers from on high. He shares all the vulnerabilities that come with embodiment. Once you stop for a while to look closely, it is impossible to turn away.